Hasenfus: Nothing But the Fact
"My name is Eugene Hasenfus. I come from Marinette, Wisconsin. I was captured yesterday in southern Nicaragua." The press was not permitted any questions that day, October 7, just a few minutes for photo ops. After thus identifying himself, the first North American captured alive, in the act of delivering arms to the contras, was led from the room defeated and resigned.
Just before the press conference, a radio announcer, unable to hide his enthusiasm, described the captured man as "tall, blond and strong, just like one always imagined a pure gringo would be." That night, Nicaraguans with access to a TV had the first fleeting chance to see for themselves.
The next day, the entire front page of the newspaper Barricada was filled with a potential candidate for best photo of the year: nineteen-year-old José Fernando Canales, with his placid, unmistakably indigenous features, hair a bit longer than regulation measured by time spent in the jungle, and a rosary showing under his army shirt, is emerging from the brush, his rifle slung over one shoulder and a slender cord draped slackly over the other. The far end of the cord is tied around the hands of a large rumpled man with an ill-humored look. Eugene Hasenfus is being led by a soldier nearly 25 years younger and a foot shorter than he, the same one who had succeeded in shooting down his plane two days earlier with a rocket launcher.
The image was matched by another on the back page, this one of a 17-year-old, 79-pound Vietnamese militia member who had captured a similarly stocky US pilot, W.H. Robinson, after his plane was downed in her country on September 20, 1965.
With the capture of Eugene Hasenfus, a fast-moving new episode has opened in the grinding war Nicaragua has been living through. A good deal of information has begun to come out around the Hasenfus case, explaining better than anything else could why this moment is so serious. Given all that is being admitted, revealed and proven through his case, envío has decided to put it together in one place in these pages.
"A little bug from the $100 million" The counterrevolution’s infiltration into the depths of Nicaraguan territory, which has occurred frequently since 1983, could not take place if these armed groups were to cease receiving airdrops of arms and equipment. Periodically, the Defense Ministry announces the number of violations of Nicaraguan air space detected by the Sandinista army's radar. These constant supply flights are identified as coming both from Honduran and Costa Rican territory.
In five years of war, Nicaragua's anti-air defense has succeeded in shooting down two contra planes, three of their light aircraft and eight helicopters. In one of the helicopters downed in 1983, two North Americans were killed. They have since been identified as members of a private assistance group for the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries.
On Sunday, October 5, 1986, one of these supply planes, a C-123K, classified in air war argot as a "tactical transport plane," was flying only 700 meters off the ground, trying to avoid Nicaraguan radar. It was coming up from the Costa Rican border and had crossed into Nicaragua over the department of Río San Juan. In the previous days, four other supply flights had been detected on this same route, although on those occasions the planes that violated the Nicaraguan skies were different ones.
In an area called El Tule, 30 kilometers north of the city of San Carlos, José Fernando Canales and 17-year-old Byron Montiel, each barely five months into their military service, had set up a portable CM2 land-air rocket, or "arrow," several days before. José Fernando had repeatedly dreamed of getting one of those planes. It was drizzling lightly in those jungles that US gold seekers had come to know so well in the 19th century. A bit past noon they heard the motors of the C-123K; José Fernando received the order to shoot. He aimed, fired, and within seconds his dream came true. The plane exploded in the air and fell to earth in pieces; only the tail section remained intact.
Nicaraguans didn't learn the news of the crash until more than 24 hours later. On the afternoon of Monday, October 6, "The Voice of Nicaragua" broke into its regular programming with a special bulletin that a plane belonging to the counterrevolution had been hit by an "arrow" and that "there were North Americans among the crew." The army had been unable to get to the remains of the aircraft right away, given the difficult terrain. When they did, they found 13,000 pounds of weaponry: 50,000 AK-47 rifle cartridges, 60 collapsible AK-47s, a similar number of RPG-7 grenade launchers and 150 pairs of jungle boots.
The C-123K carried a crew of four. Pilot William Cooper: dead. Co-pilot Wallace Blaine Sawyer: dead. Both North Americans. Radio operator Freddy Vilches, a Nicaraguan member of the FDN trained in the 2nd Air Transport Division of the Honduran Army: also dead. Eugene Hasenfus, in charge of releasing the cargo, had been able to see in time that the rocket was going to hit and jumped from the plane with a parachute given him by his brother before leaving the United States. It saved his life.
"Give up, gringo, or we'll blow you to hell!" shouted Rafaél Antonio Acevedo, when he found Hasenfus on October 6, after combing the area for the man he had seen jump from the plane. Hasenfus was in an abandoned hut, lying in a hammock he had fashioned from his parachute, eating a squash. He was armed with a pistol and a pocketknife, but the minute he heard 20-year-old Rafaél Antonio, he threw them down and gave himself up. A few days later Nicaragua’s Defense Minister, Humberto Ortega, decorated the three Sandinista soldiers with gold medals.
Rafaél Antonio recalled that "the gringo was nervous, completely demoralized, frightened; he knew he was doing something wrong in someone else's country." And José Fernando: "We’re pleased because this is the first little bug from the contras’ $100 million that we’ve swatted down."
When the news first reached the United States, government officials from Reagan on down refused to give it importance or even show interest, eluding any responsibility in the flight of the downed plane. This evasive attitude would only last a few days.
The Salvadoran Connection Eugene Hasenfus was brought from southern Nicaraguan to Managua on October 7 for questioning by Nicaraguan Security and Defense officials. When he arrived at the Managua airport, one soldier from the Sandinista army approached, patted him gently on the shoulder and said, laughing, "So what now, Rambo?" Even though the comment was in colloquial Spanish, the point could not have been lost on Hasenfus. A few days later President Daniel Ortega would add, "The Americans have to remember that Superman doesn't exist."
In one of numerous ironies, Managua theatergoers had seen the US film "Latino" only a month earlier. The film’s moment of truth comes when a US Green Beret, of Latin origin, is asked to go into Nicaragua without his dog tags, and realizes he’s risking his life for a country that plans to abandon him to an inglorious end if he’s killed or captured. In the final scene he’s led to a truck, hands tied with a cord, after being captured in an attempt to blow up the grain silo of a farm cooperative. Clenched in his fist are the dog tags he was instructed to leave behind.
From the very first moment, Hasenfus demonstrated a willingness to collaborate, telling the Nicaraguan authorities through an interpreter everything he knew about the flight, the plane and the weapons. And there was a lot to tell. The C-123K was not only prepped to supply the counterrevolutionaries with armaments but was also a gold mine of data about the contra networks in the United States. Among ID cards, letters, flight records, address books and other written matter, dozens of documents were taken from the wreckage and made available to journalists for photographing. From these documents, together with Hasenfus' declarations, Nicaraguan government intelligence information and revelations published by investigative journalists in the US, a three dimensional picture has taken shape of the denunciations that Nicaragua has been making in every possible forum for the past several years.
Hasenfus carried various documents with him, among them an ID card with the number 4422, which identified him as an "adviser" of the "USA Group," valid between July 28, 1986 and January 28, 1987. The most surprising aspect of the card is that it was issued in El Salvador, signed by none other than General Juan Rafael Bustillo, head of the Salvadoran Air Force, giving Hasenfus access to the most reserved areas of the Ilopango military air base in San Salvador.
According to Hasenfus, the fated plane took off from Ilopango, crossed the Pacific, entered Costa Rica from the northwest, then turned and made its way up toward Nicaragua. During the flight the plane had to report three times, once as it flew over Costa Rican territory. The Costa Rican government said it knew absolutely nothing about this or any similar flight.
Between July and October, when his work ended in a precipitous jump in a parachute, Hasenfus had already participated in 10 supply flights for the contras. In six of these, the route was the same as on October 5. The other four left from the El Aguacate base, in Honduras.* Hasenfus personally knew about four other planes at Ilopango used for contra airdrops: a Cessna-180, two Caribu DHC4 and a second C-123K. Some US officials admitted during these first days that a total of 19 planes were dedicated to this task between El Salvador and Honduras.**
*This base was built by 400 US military engineers during the Ahuas Tara II military maneuvers (June 1983 to March 1984), the largest US maneuvers ever carried out in Latin America.
**On October 4, the eve of the shooting down of the C-123K, a plane crashed at a military base near San Antonio, Texas, killing three crewmembers. It was also carrying military supplies for the counterrevolution.
These are large planes with significant cargo capacity; they aren’t easy to hide. For example, the C-123K has a 110-meter wingspan and can carry 60 people. According to data in the records of the plane that was shot down, it had dropped nearly 66 tons of armaments to the contras. On October 5, it was "Franklin," head of the Jorge Salazar task force, currently deep in central Zelaya province, who was waiting for the rifles and ammunition to fall from the sky.*
*This group was responsible for the ambush of a passenger bus in La Gateada, Chontales, on October 14. The group opened fire indiscriminately with rifles and machine guns, leaving two passengers dead and 15 wounded; two others were kidnapped.
Since Reagan decided to enter into a secret and covert war against Nicaragua in 1981, it has been publicly claimed on various occasions that the "activities" of this war were aimed at impeding an alleged flow of arms from Nicaragua to El Salvador's FMLN. Photographic proof was offered amounting to nothing more than confusing smudges in unidentifiable locales; when asked why all their high-tech intelligence mechanisms had not permitted interdiction of any shipments, US Embassy officials moaned that these massive arms shipments were transported across the Gulf of Fonseca in dugout canoes, and thus hard to detect and capture. This supposed arms flow destined to destabilize the Salvadoran government rendered the continuing US war against Nicaragua "legal." Although the administration now offers other reasons, it has never ceased to argue that Nicaragua is trying to export subversion to its neighbors and militarily destabilize them—apparently in the belief that only it has the right to do that. The Salvadoran government itself even tried, unsuccessfully, to make this argument at the World Court hearings.
Suddenly there is now clear proof, with no fuzzy edges, demonstrating that the flow indeed exists, but in the opposite direction. And it is not coming half a dozen rifles at a time in a tiny fishing boat or on mule back through the mud to elude border guards. It is arriving thousands of pounds at a time in huge planes, directed by a team of US advisers, with the authorization of José Napoleón Duarte's Christian Democratic government.
When Hasenfus' declarations became known in El Salvador, representatives of that government, from Duarte on down, sidestepped responsibility for what had happened. As in the United States, this attitude did not last long. Duarte ended by saying that one of the proofs that El Salvador is a free country is that its airport is open to anyone who wants to use it, without having to answer to the government about the ends for which it is being employed. The Nicaraguan government, which is taking Costa Rica and Honduras to the World Court for lending its territory to a war already condemned as illegal by the Court, is now considering doing the same with El Salvador.
"My husband works for the CIA""Eugene Hasenfus had told his wife Sally that if anything ever happened to him she should go immediately to the highest level of the US government. She did. Sally called the State Department the minute the news was released about the downed plane and said: "My husband works for the CIA."
From the outset, her husband said the same, relating to Nicaraguan authorities how he had come to be in charge of the air cargo for the C-123K. Hasenfus said he had served in Southeast Asia for 13 years, first in the Marines, then for a CIA company in Vietnam called Air America. There he had acquired enough experience to be an expert in air cargo, not to mention in free-fall parachute jumps. This lasted until 1973. Between then and 1986, Hasenfus said he had worked in construction.
In June of 1986 William Cooper, the pilot who died in the crash, contacted Hasenfus from Miami to offer him work at a monthly salary of $3,000 plus travel expenses, and a $750 bonus for every overflight of Nicaragua. Hasenfus, who was in economic difficulties at the time, arrived in San Salvador in June to begin work with Cooper, booking a room at the Ramada Inn. At the time of his arrival, he said, the company that contracted him, Corporate Air Service, had warehouses at Ilopango in which 44.5 tons of weapons were stored. Corporate Air Service, apparently a phantom front for Southern Air Transport, a company owned outright by the CIA between 1960 and 1973 and reputedly still used by the agency, has no phone listing and its name is not on the building where it is supposedly located. According to The New York Times, Hasenfus recently told family and friends that he was working in Florida for Southern Air, in fact the registered owner of the plane in question.
Hasenfus admitted knowing some 26 North Americans in El Salvador who worked for Southern. A personal address book of co-pilot Sawyer included a list of 34 surnames of North Americans working in El Salvador who had something to do with supply flights to the contras. Eighteen of these were affiliated with Southern, Cooper and Sawyer among them. On the plane itself, data were found about its crews, cargo, hours, routes, etc., for all supply flights between April and October 1986.
Privatization is no excuse"The scandals raised by the mining of the Nicaraguan ports in April 1984, an activity that the CIA acknowledged participation in, as well as the contras' publication of a terrorist manual the following month, also under CIA responsibility, motivated Congress to approve a law in August that year prohibiting the CIA from continuing to support the contras except with intelligence or other information. What the Hasenfus case has proven is that the CIA has been flagrantly violating this legal prohibition, with the collaboration of the Salvadoran military.
In an attempt to obviate this embarrassing situation, US government officials insisted that these were not CIA operations, but rather activities of private citizens who were voluntarily helping the counterrevolutionaries through private organizations and with private funds. This road does not lead to legal salvation either, however, since, apart from the fact that they are not operating independently, these "private" groups thus violate the US Neutrality Act, which expressly prohibits US citizens from participating in military or paramilitary actions against governments with which the US maintains diplomatic relations.
Some Congress people noted and denounced these legal irregularities, demanding an investigation to clarify the circumstances surrounding the plane downed in Nicaragua. The demand took on particular significance, since only a few days later Congress would be faced with the final opportunity to approve or reject the $100 million for the counterrevolutionaries in the military appropriations bill. Many Nicaraguans, still trusting that remnants of honesty exist in Congress, expected that the Hasenfus case could stop the handing over of the $100 million. Democratic Senator John Kerry, in fact, prepared a 13-page report based on information provided by 50 witnesses, proving that there are bank accounts, pilots, planes, airfields and military bases that have been shared by counterrevolutionaries, drug traffickers and smugglers.
At that moment, when nothing could any longer be denied in the United States, and indifference toward the case had no further merit, the administration changed tack. The likes of Under Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams began to exalt these "private citizens," who, according to him, "are keeping the freedom fighters alive until Congress acts. They are heroes; we must feel proud of such men, God bless them."
In his home in the United States, Hasenfus' father, overwhelmed by the difficult situation in which his son found himself and by the seriousness of what the remains of the plane were revealing, declared, "It would have been better if Eugene had died. The dead don't talk."
Birds of a terrorist feather"Hasenfus had been in El Salvador for three months carrying out his job of calculating the arms cargo that could fit in each flight and the precision in dropping each load, but he was not close to other North Americans involved in the same work. He did his job under the direct supervision of William Cooper, the one Hasenfus knew best.
William Cooper, a card-carrying member of the Grand Masonic Lodge of Nevada, was more than a good Southern pilot. He was a functionary in the confidence of the CIA. According to US information, Cooper had made flights to extremely secret bases of the US Army. He had been a Marine pilot during World War II, during which time he became a specialist in C-123s. Just before his death he was in charge of buying another C-123K for Southern for $250,000.
Hasenfus also gave other names, among which were two individuals of Cuban origin who had positions above the personnel responsible for the flights: Ramón Medina and Max Gómez. The latter is the nom de guerre of Félix Rodríguez, a Cuban-American linked to the CIA and to the Cuban counterrevolution since the 1960s. He participated in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and in 1967-68, during the period of the guerrilla war of Ché Guevara in Bolivia, he collaborated in the US counterinsurgency war in that country.
According to The New York Times, Gómez wore on his wrist the watch that belonged to Ché Guevara and was one of his interrogators in Higueras, before the revolutionary was killed. He was also one of the first CIA agents to link up with the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries when, at the time of the Malvinas war, the Argentine military advisers abandoned this work entrusted to them by the US government and it was turned over to the Salvadoran military. Together with Colonel Bustillo, Gómez was responsible for coordinating the supply flights to the contras. The administration is now trying to present him as a kind of "hero" against the Salvadoran FMLN for being the designer of the "helicopter war," part of the US counterinsurgency tactics in that country.
Ramón Medina is also a false name; his real identity is Luis Posada Carriles. He is also a Cuban-American, and a dangerous terrorist.
On October 6, 1976—almost ten years to the day before the shooting down of the C-123K—a Cubana plane exploded in the air upon takeoff from Barbados, headed for Havana. The bomb explosion killed all 73 passengers and crew, among them a young fencing team that was returning from a championship match held in Venezuela. There is a museum in Havana in memory of the victims of that terrorist act. Those physically responsible for placing the bomb on the plane were two Venezuelans; Freddy Lugo and Hernán Ricardo. The intellectual authors were two Cuban counterrevolutionaries: Orlando Bosch—who had been involved a month earlier in the broad daylight car bombing in Washington, D.C. that killed Orlando Letelier, a Cabinet member during Chile's Allende government—and Luis Posada Carriles.
The four were taken to a Venezuelan prison, but never tried or sentenced, due to pressures from the Cuban counterrevolution. Luis Posada had served eight years in prison at San Juan de los Morros, Venezuela, in very comfortable conditions, when he mysteriously escaped and left Venezuela at the end of 1985. It is now known that he did so with a false Salvadoran passport. Hasenfus has identified photos of Posada as Ramón Medina, the man in charge of the papers of North Americans who arrived in El Salvador and the connection between the US Embassy and the group of "advisers." Luis Posada has had plastic surgery and changed his name. In a special press conference in Managua on October 15, Deputy Interior Minister Luis Carrión repeated several times, "I can assure you that Ramón Medina is none other than the terrorist Posada Carriles."
Posada Carriles’ terrorist history is long. He was tied to the Cuban counterrevolution since the sixties. The CIA trained him in counterrevolutionary bases established in those years in Florida. He recruited the men who made up Brigade 2506, which led the Bay of Pigs invasion. Later, he was responsible for more than 70 infiltrations into Cuba. He joined the US Army, carrying out activities under CIA direction in Vietnam and in Somoza's Nicaragua. Between 1968 and 1973, he also worked in counterinsurgency projects of the Venezuelan police, always linked to the CIA. After escaping prison, he was interviewed a few months ago by a Hollywood TV channel, his appearance already transformed. On that occasion, he stated that he worked in Central America.
Public complicity in the “private" networkAccording to the clues being discovered in Nicaragua and the United States, Max Gómez was recommended to the Salvadoran army by Donald Gregg, personal adviser to Vice President George Bush, who surely knew him and valued his capacities from his time as CIA director (1976 to 1977). US newspapers say that Gómez kept Bush directly informed about the supply of the contras from Salvadoran territory. Three flights were made a week after Gómez’s arrival to El Salvador in early 1985.
With all this information, the key lines of the famous "private network" are being reconstructed. It is not very private when the Vice President, his personal adviser, his son Jeb Bush, and ex-Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, currently Reagan’s National Security Council adviser, are all implicated in it. The "private network" has ended up being what, in fact, everyone already knew it was: a smokescreen to cloud the official involvement that the United States has had for years in a war that is increasingly open, though still "undeclared."
This network, of which Hasenfus is only a small piece, was the invention of CIA director William Casey, when the restrictions were imposed on his agency's actions in Nicaragua in 1984. Within a very short time some 20 "private" groups emerged which established connections with the governments of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Costa Rica and with anticommunist affinity groups in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, South Korea, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia. Investigations in the US revealed, for example, that Saudi money was used to buy the downed C-123K.
Another small but significant official complicity is that the plane into which Comandante Tomás Borge's men were supposedly loading cocaine, according to photographic proof offered by the State Department in 1984, was the very one that is today strewn through the jungle in southern Nicaragua.
Finally, when the crossword puzzle had most of its key words already filled in, Salvador military spokesman Mauricio Salvador Hernández declared to The New York Times that "Bush does indeed have something to do with the supply of armaments to the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries, but he tried to wash his hands of this business and throw the problem in our laps."
I’m not a freedom fighter"The US Embassy in Managua had some hard times during the early days of the Hasenfus case, and did not emerge from them gracefully. On October 9, for instance, the Embassy refused to open its gates to receive the coffins bearing the bodies of Cooper and Sawyer or the Foreign Ministry representative who accompanied them, given the crush of journalists and photographers around the gate. After 10 minutes, Nicaragua's embassy police succeeded in ringing the two coffins, which had been placed on the ground, and gently walked the journalists back from the gate.
That evening the Embassy held a press conference from which it tried to exclude all Nicaraguan journalists and Europeans with a Latin appearance, giving in only when the US journalists protested. In its communiqué, the Embassy accused Nicaragua of "ghoulish behavior" toward the two corpses for leaving them on the street when the gates remained unopened. (The next day the bodies would be returned to the US, lacking the honors befitting "heroes," in the luggage compartment of an American plane.) Moreover, the United States accused the Nicaraguans of violating international law, specifically Article 36 of the Vienna Convention, which has to do with the right of a detained person to see his or her consul. At that time, Hasenfus still had not been able to speak sufficiently with the US consul, although he had seen his wife in the consul's presence.
At the press conference, journalists raised such questions as: "Is the United States at war with Nicaragua?" and "What about the violation of all the articles of the World Court decision?" The Embassy spokesperson responded to them saying only, "That is a different issue."
On October 11, the Nicaraguan authorities gave permission to Mike Wallace of CBS's "Sixty Minutes" to interview Hasenfus. For 20 minutes millions of US television viewers were able to see Hasenfus speak with complete spontaneity. The interview was important because Hasenfus until that time had had minimal contact with US government officials, and had received no guidance from them.
Wallace: Nicaragua's Foreign Minister, Miguel D'Escoto, who was in New York last week, told me that one of the first things you said when you were captured was, 'Hell, this isn't my war.'*
*Retranslated into English from the Spanish version of this "60 Minutes" program shown on Nicaraguan television
Hasenfus: Yes, that's what I said.
Wallace: What did that mean?
Hasenfus: I was contracted.... I'm an American. This is a Nicaraguan war. I'm here working, not as a soldier. That's why it isn't my war. I don't believe that this is an American war.
Wallace: What do you mean?
Hasenfus: What I mean is that these people here have their own war and now I'm trapped in the middle of it. It was a very selfish mistake on my part to get involved in it. A selfish error, for my family....
Hasenfus: Well, I'm here. That explains it all.
Wallace: Yes, but you were making money, is that it?
Hasenfus: Yes, I was making money, that's true.
Wallace: Can I ask you how much, or shouldn't I go into that?
Hasenfus: I was making $3,000 a month.
Wallace: Right, that's how you came here to work. Doesn't that make you a freedom fighter like those that Reagan talks about?
Hasenfus: No, I'm not a freedom fighter. I'm not one of those soldiers of fortune or whatever. I was an individual who was asked if he wanted to work. It was something you do, a way to make money, and that's what we did.
Wallace: But I detect—correct me if I'm wrong—that what you are saying is that the United States shouldn't be here trying to overthrow the Sandinista government.
Hasenfus:That's my opinion and it is probably the opinion of many other Americans.
Wallace: Yet, strangely, here you are helping the contras try to overthrow the Sandinista government.
Hasenfus: Yes, I was here.
Wallace: Gene, what you are doing is trying to win over the Sandinistas. I understand that. I would do the same. In other words, I would say: 'I'm not against you boys, let me go.'
Hasenfus: No, I'm saying what I'm saying on my own. I believe that we shouldn't be here. After the way they captured me, it could be said of me that I am a mercenary. Since they captured me, every day these people could be doing whatever they want to me, I believe with justification. And they have treated me well.
Wallace: Do you consider yourself a prisoner of war?
Hasenfus: Yes I am.
Wallace: Do you think that the United States has an obligation to come rescue you?
Hasenfus: No. I would like to say yes, but personally, I myself say no. Of course being linked to the Company the way I was and knowing what it was doing...
Wallace: The Company is the CIA?
Hasenfus: Yes, that’s why I think I merit a little support.
No red light for the $100 million"The Hasenfus case became public at a critical time for the administration's international policy, just after the news about the failure of the summit meeting in Iceland and revelations about the administration's manipulation of the mass media against Libya. The administration reacted in several ways to these compromising events:
* First, it tried to shift responsibility to the "private network" of ex-General John Singlaub, who denied any connection. Singlaub argued that the downed plane had carried too much evidence and that the job had been botched too badly to be associated with him. By the same logic, he insisted that the CIA could not have had its hands in it.
* Secondly, it let responsibility come down upon the Salvadoran government, which, after initial denials, had no other recourse except to admit its connections.
* Finally, it tacitly accepted responsibility but avoided any confessions of guilt or shame. Instead, the administration has tried to stir up nationalistic feelings of pride. From this perspective, the supply operations have suffered a slight blow, but are being turned into a success, foreshadowing possibilities during the coming months of a counterrevolution well supplied with new weapons and ready to reopen the southern military front with new men and weapons.
A case like that of Hasenfus, potentially destabilizing for the administration, or at least highly challenging to its Nicaragua policy, should have had a greater impact. However, it didn’t even put a red light in the road of the final approval of the $100 million.
During the same period that the plane was shot down, 75 US war veterans turned in the medals they had won in the Vietnam war and other US wars, and the four veterans fasting on the Capitol steps were ending 46 days of their fast to protest the war policy against Nicaragua. These actions didn’t manage to turn the light red either.
On October 16, Congress gave final ratification to the policy of giving $100 million in arms to the counterrevolution and putting the CIA in charge of the war. It was even more shocking that Senator Tom Harkin's proposal to investigate the Hasenfus case was defeated 55 to 47, as if there was a desire to bury everything in silence.
The $100 million, now approved and already being disbursed to the contras, constitute part of the largest military spending package in US history. On October 18, two days after his victory, President Reagan signed the bill into law, in obvious haste. Sixty million dollars is being spent immediately for the purchase of ground-to-air rockets, light artillery, remote control mines, etc, and the remaining $40 million in February. The day after the signing, 500 Green Berets from Georgia were dropped by parachute over Honduran territory near the Nicaraguan border for training in "nighttime operations and in survival in the mountains and marshes." Within a few days, 14,000 troops of the 82nd Airborne Division were involved in the largest maneuvers ever carried out at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, simulating an invasion of Nicaragua. "We hope that Daniel Ortega gets the message," said one of the leaders of the maneuvers.
Despite the dramatic proof of illegality in the Hasenfus case and the scandal itself, Congress voted once again for illegality and scandal, passively resigned to a situation they themselves created by reopening the doors to the CIA, approving the $100 million with the CIA's conditions. The Hasenfus case showed that those doors were never really closed by any law. The congressional amendments were flouted, and now their proponents have no moral authority to criticize the CIA for forcing open the doors before Congress opened them officially once again.
The red light of “international alert” On October 18, the President of Nicaragua called an urgent press conference to declare an "international alert" and announce that Nicaragua would be going to the UN Security Council to demand that the US comply with the World Court verdict. On October 10, just five days after the downing of the contra supply plane, the Nicaragua’s foreign minister, Fr. Miguel D'Escoto, holding some of the documents that had been found in the plane, had made an unusual plea before the 41st General Assembly:
“President Reagan, Secretary Shultz: From the UN we urge you, wherever you may be, in the name of the God in whom you claim to believe, in whom my people and I truly believe, to stop the war, accept the World Court verdict and put your foreign policy in line with the norms established in the Charter. No matter how powerful you may be, don't think you have certain prerogatives that God has never given to any person or any nation. We hold you responsible—and someday you will have to give an accounting before the Lord—for all the bloodshed and suffering inflicted on so many innocent people by your insatiable desire for domination. We hold you responsible beforehand for any evil that may befall those who are fasting for peace, whom you have senselessly ignored until now. There is no doubt that the United States os a very rich and powerful nation that can turn its back on all the courts on earth, but it is time now that you start fearing the implacable justice of the God of peace and life. Believe me, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Shultz, there is no way to avoid or to flout that justice."
The UN Security Council met on October 21. Nicaragua invoked Article 94 of the UN Charter, which states that if one of the parties involved does not comply with the World Court verdict the other can have recourse to the Council. After listening to various statements by Council members, the body moved to vote on a resolution urging the United States to accept the World Court finding. Of the 15 members, 11 voted in favor, 3 abstained (France, England and Thailand), and the US cast its veto. This is the fourth veto the United States has used since l982 on Security Council resolutions questioning its Nicaragua policy. But this time the veto is illegal since it goes against the UN's own Charter. Nicaragua immediately called on the UN General Assembly to take a position on the resolution, knowing that the United States doesn’t have veto power in the Assembly.*
*On November 3 Nicaragua scored a major success when a significant majority of the General Assembly adopted the resolution "urging" the United States to comply "fully and immediately" with the World Court decision. Ninety-four countries voted in favor, 47 abstained and only 3 voted against (United States, Israel and El Salvador). Among those abstaining were Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras. It’s the first time in UN history that the Assembly has condemned a nation for not respecting a sentence of the UN Court.)
This month Nicaragua gained notable international legitimacy, offsetting the US Congress' reassertion of contra legitimacy. In addition, the Soviet Union made one of its most concrete and explicit position statements concerning Nicaragua. Soviet Foreign Minister Edward Shevardnadze, at the end of his official visit to Mexico on October 5 (the same day the US plane was shot down over Nicaragua), stated:
“The reason for the attacks on Nicaragua, as in the case of Cuba, is that the US administration has a kind of allergic reaction to political processes that don’t conform to what it thinks is proper. All around the Soviet Union, as you know very well, are many countries that have a socio-political system basically very different from ours. An example is Turkey, which has more than a sufficient quantity of weapons and which, furthermore, has them pointed directly against the Soviet Union. The US presence can also be seen there in dozens of bases with US Air Force planes for arms transport. Nevertheless, we maintain balanced, ‘good neighbor’ relations with Turkey. We have never tried to instigate, much less financed, a coup by the opposition forces there.
“Compare this with the US attitude toward Nicaragua. It is ridiculous for the United States to try to justify that attitude by claiming a mythical Soviet military presence in Nicaragua. I can declare with full responsibility: there has not been nor is there now a Soviet military presence in Nicaragua.”
Three chargesWhile Nicaragua was making important strides in the diplomatic struggle to counteract the illegality of the US attitude, Eugene Hasenfus was on trial in Managua.
The trial began on October 20 in the People's Anti-Somocista Tribunals (TPAs). The TPAs were founded on April 11, 1983 and were structured based on international agreements relating to war crimes. The purpose was to expedite the handling of cases, given the emergency created by the counterrevolutionary war. According to Decree 1233 which brought them into being, the TPAs were created "to respond to the situation of aggression imposed on the Nicaraguan people by the US government." They are civilian tribunals, with civilian judges and criteria, made up of a lawyer and two citizens. In these courts, the accused is granted the same rights as in any other criminal court, except that an appeal can be made only to the higher level within the same court.
The Hasenfus trial is taking place at a time when the counterrevolutionary aggression is escalating.
An event happened on that very day that is strictly extra-judicial but helps to understand the seriousness of the charges against the accused. A Claymore mine destroyed a small civilian transport bus with 45 peasants aboard on its regular early-morning route from Pantasma to Jinotega. Of the 45 people on the bus, 5 were killed and 34 injured. Six of the injured had to have one or both legs amputated. Both a small girl and an old man lost their two legs that day. At the opening of the Hasenfus trial, Managua newspapers showed photos of the mutilated bodies. The planes supplying the contras carry these and other kinds of mines of different sizes in their cargo. The contras then place the devices in the highways and roads of the Nicaraguan countryside.
According to Nicaraguan law, Eugene Hasenfus, even though a foreigner, can be tried by Nicaraguan courts because he committed the alleged crimes in national territory. Hasenfus is charged with three crimes:
1) Violating the Law of Security and Public Order, sub-paragraphs (a) and (b), by taking part in acts that seek to subject Nicaragua to foreign domination or to work to the detriment of its sovereignty, and by using weapons to attack the government of the nation;
2) Terrorism, a violation of Article 499 of the Penal Code, which includes under terrorism the importation, manufacture, distribution and illegal transport of weapons;
3) Illegal association to commit a crime, a violation of Article 493 of the Penal Code.
One of the biggest questions at the start of the trial was: who would be the defense attorney? Griffin Bell, US attorney general during the Carter administration, tried to offer his services, but according to Nicaraguan law, attorneys must be registered with the Nicaraguan Supreme Court. Griffin Bell has been going back and forth between the US and Managua and has expressed his disgust at not being allowed to confer with the accused. The law simply does not permit it. He is also upset because he hasn’t been able to meet with the President of Nicaragua.
The US Embassy in Nicaragua finally selected as defense attorney Enrique Sotelo Borgen, a member of the Conservative Party faction that abstained from the 1984 elections and therefore is not in the National Assembly. In his first press conference Sotelo got some chuckles from US reporters when he said that for him Hasenfus was just "a skilled worker whose specialty is air freight."
The prosecutor in this trial is Nicaraguan Minister of Justice Rodrigo Reyes, who has asked for the maximum penalty: 30 years in prison. In Nicaragua, there has been no death penalty since the 1979 triumph. In fact, on October 1, just four days before Hasenfus' plane was shot down, the National Assembly—which is continuing its daily discussion of the articles of the Constitution—gave majority approval to Article 23, ratifying abolition of the death penalty in Nicaragua.
During its case, the prosecution gave a historical synthesis of US imperialist aggression in Nicaragua since last century. Sotelo focused his defense argument on denying the competency of the TPAs to hear this case—because Hasenfus is not a "Somocista"—and questioning its legality and impartiality. Sotelo also denied the competency of the prosecutor, rejected the description of Hasenfus as either a "mercenary" or a "prisoner of war," rejected the prisoner's confessions because they were made before military authorities and called the whole trial "a legal laughing-stock which covers the nation's courts with shame."
These arguments bore a resemblance to the initial approach taken up by US government propaganda: to speak neither favorably nor badly of the accused, but very disparagingly of the court that would try him. Sotelo's arguments were rejected, and the trial continued.
In his rebuttal to the defense attorney, the minister of justice presented arguments such as the following:
“In the written accusation, the prosecution has never referred to Hasenfus as a prisoner of war, as the defense maliciously claims, because to do so would be to accept the thesis that the US has officially declared war on Nicaragua; we have always indicated in our written statements that the war Nicaragua is suffering is a war of aggression and, as such, illegal and unjust.
“We have also not accused Hasenfus of being a mercenary, precisely because the crime of being a mercenary is not in our penal code. However, that does not mean that there are no mercenaries. In fact, in the additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1977, we find it expressly stated that mercenaries will not have combatant status and that they will be tried as criminals.*
*In Resolution 40-25 of the UN General Assembly, November 29, 1985, there is also reference to the crime of being a mercenary: the General Assembly reaffirms that the practice of using mercenaries against sovereign states and national liberation movements constitutes a criminal act, and urges all governments to pass laws that declare the recruiting, financing, training and transport of mercenaries on their territory as punishable crimes. It further urges governments to pass laws prohibiting their nationals from lending their services as mercenaries.
After the first phase of the defense, Sotelo seemed to want to focus on Hasenfus' economic need, destroying any link between his client's activity and the CIA and avoiding the terrorist label for his client. In his judgment, his client's crimes would be complicity in arms trafficking, with the attenuating circumstance that he did not know what was in the cargo he was throwing out of the plane, and complicity in the violation of another country’s air space.
Griffin Bell was not the only former US Attorney General who came to Managua to get a first-hand view of the trial. Also in town was Ramsey Clark, who held the post during the Johnson administration.
After familiarizing himself with the facts of the case and with the trial, Clark expressed his conclusions publicly in Managua:
* The trial complies with all the requirements of Nicaraguan law.
* As a political opponent of the government, defense attorney Sotelo is politicizing the trial. (Clark said the US Embassy chose Sotelo from a list of 12 names; it is known that Hasenfus' personal attorney is very upset with Sotelo's defense style, which could be hurting his client's chances.)
* The accused is being pressured by US government officials who have seen him, in order to keep him from talking about certain details of his activity.
Clark categorically stated that Hasenfus' crime "is the kind that would merit the death penalty in the United Sttes. If he were a mercenary doing something similar for the revolutionaries in El Salvador, he'd be lucky if they didn't execute him immediately."
Hasenfus's wife Sally and brother William are present at the trial. The Nicaraguan government has shown a high degree of flexibility, permitting Embassy personnel and family members to be present during conversations between Hasenfus and his attorney.
The case is hardly defensible. Griffin Bell himself, after coming on strong at first, had to recognize that "after all, Hasenfus didn’t drop out of the sky but was shot down as a crew member on a plane full of weapons." From that point, he began to appeal to the mercy of the Sandinista government, since Hasenfus was unemployed and had three children to feed. Griffin Bell is serving as Sotelo's adviser.
Hasenfus has recognized his guilt before the court, confirming all the information he gave in the early questioning sessions. The only change is that he has sought to distance himself from his first statements about the links he pointed to between Cooper, the CIA and George Bush, saying he heard Cooper saying things, but that he himself was not sure of them. This is the present line of defense: extricate the CIA and high administration officials from the whole business. This objective is almost as difficult as proving Hasenfus' innocence.
The Hasenfus trial occupied the month of October in Nicaragua. It is public and is followed avidly by both national and international journalists and by the Nicaraguan people through the mass media. In the present war of resistance, the downing of the plane, the capture of Hasenfus and his trial form a symbol that gives certainty of victory.
The Hasenfus case cuts across the current historical moment in Nicaragua leaving a trail of evidence, proof and revelations. Now there can be no doubt about the kind of war the Nicaraguan people are facing: a US war against Nicaragua. The Reagan administration has no more masks to put on or take off. It has become isolated, stubbornly trying to legitimate an illegal war that it runs completely from Washington. Thus isolated, it is at the same time facing the growing alternative of greater involvement, in which many Coopers and Sawyers could die and many Hasenfuses could be captured. These deaths and captures are not yet legitimated in US public opinion, which is the only battleground on which this unstoppable war can be brought to a halt.
While preparations begin for CIA advisers to train contras in "discreet" camps in the United States and gigantic joint US-Honduras maneuvers are being announced for December, rumors are growing that the administration's next step will be a unilateral break in diplomatic relations with Nicaragua, which would permit it to continue acting as illegally as it has been but with greater consistency. The US government wants to drag its Central American allies into this plan.
But Nicaragua is not isolated. This month it was chosen to be the 1987 site for the annual meeting of the World Interparliamentary Union, which brings together 103 of the world's parliaments. This is an important expression of recognition for the legitimacy of Nicaragua's National Assembly, which with its daily debate on the text of the new Constitution continues to build the nation’s new institutional framework. In the Church-State arena, the second round of dialogue was held this month and participants are beginning to study the concrete points that would constitute part of a General Agreement to permanently assure the legitimacy, respect and autonomy of each institution relative to the other.
The aggression continues, and a proof of that is the intense fighting going on this month, the heaviest this year, between the main body of FDN troops, which is trying to penetrate into Nicaragua, and four "irregular warfare battalions" of the Sandinista army. Although the aggression goes on, the prospects of growing aggression are ever more alarming and the US government is giving no sign whatever of changing its war-making course, Nicaragua is not nervous. It is still a country where incredible normalcy reigns. Resistance becomes more and more a daily virtue of the people. There is serenity and security and there are victories. There is the simple peace of being right. It is the peace evident on the face of the Sandinista soldier as he brought along US citizen Eugene Hasenfus, tied and under control.